Academics, Researchers & International Organisations

Abhishek Sinha, Associate Partner at Khaitan & Co., on how to gain expertise in Corporate Law

Abhishek Sinha is a dual qualified (England & Wales and India) corporate lawyer with a post-qualification experience of more than ten years. Prior to joining Khaitan, he was working as a ‘Partner’ at Shardul Amarchand, Mumbai. He started his career at a leading law firm in Mumbai (DSK Legal) and later joined the Mumbai office of AZB & Partners. In the year 2012, he was seconded to Morrison & Foerster, Tokyo as an ‘International Visiting Attorney’.    

Abhishek has been leading transactions involving corporate and commercial laws. Abhishek has wide-ranging experience in advising on private equity matters, as well as structures requiring India entry strategies. He has been involved in various acquisition matters (both domestic and cross-border), contract negotiations, and has regularly advised his clients on investment strategies, joint ventures, strategic alliances, regulatory compliances, exit options and general corporate matters.

To satisfy his academic inclination, in addition to his legal practice, Abhishek has been a visiting lecturer at ILS Law College (Pune), KC Law College (Mumbai) and Government Law College (Mumbai). He has also handled various academic assignments at several law colleges, including HR College (Mumbai) and the National University of Advanced Legal Studies (Cochin). He has on numerous occasions spoken at several seminars and conferences, including the Institute of Company Secretaries of India and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Pune on issues pertaining to foreign direct investments, due diligence, companies act, the law relating to contracts and related subjects.

In this interview he talks to us about:

  • Life, law and the choices he made while pursuing it.
  • The work entailed in his position, and the field of corporate law dealt with.
  • The importance of grades at the law school.
  • Importance of socializing in career progression.

Tell us something about yourself. Where did you grow up and attend school?

 

Hi! This is the much-dreaded classic question: “Tell me about yourself”! It reminds me of a quote from ‘The Office’ (I think season 5): “Sometimes I’ll start a sentence, and I don’t even know where it’s going. I just hope I find it along the way.

I’m a dual qualified (England & Wales and India) corporate lawyer with a post-qualification experience of more than ten years. I graduated from ILS Law College, Pune in 2006 with dual bachelor degrees. Presently, I am working in the Mumbai office of Khaitan & Co, as an associate partner, primarily focusing on private equity transactions. Prior to re-joining Khaitan, last year, I was a corporate partner at Shardul Amarchand, Mumbai. For me, my first office will always remain special, and it must find a mention in this “know me” segment. I started my career at a leading law firm in Mumbai (DSK Legal) and later joined the Mumbai office of AZB & Partners. After a stint of approximately two and a half years at AZB, I joined Khaitan. I have also spent a fair amount of time at the Tokyo office of Morrison & Foerster as an ‘International Visiting Attorney’.

I grew up in a small town, Ranchi (yes, the same place as Dhoni!) and completed my schooling from DAV Shyamli (yes, the same place as Dhoni!!). Just for my SoBo friends, Ranchi is the capital of Jharkhand (and yes you can google for Jharkhand).

What brought you into studying law as your profession?

 

Law, happened to me, just by chance and not the choice. I was a science student and didn’t score well in the entrance test to grab an MBBS seat. My rank in the CBSE PMT was just enough to get me through BDS, and I never wanted to spend my entire life looking inside someone’s mouth. My dad wanted me to join the BDS, and I was just looking for a way out. India Today magazine came to my rescue; ILS was ranked 2nd in the law colleges ranking that year, and I applied because that was the only college where the admission was based on class 12th marks. Mine was the last name in the 1st merit list. But the real motivation to pursue my law degree seriously happened in the 3rd year of my college. The only good thing about myself (I am just being modest, there are a lot of good things about me), is that once I take things seriously, I take it seriously. I worked hard and topped the Pune University in my 3rd and 4th year of college (that’s a different thing that both the years, after re-evaluation results, I was ranked 2nd). Haha!

After joining the profession, I had the benefit of having some amazing mentors, and I think my ‘student mode’ will continue for a long time as there’s a lot to learn and I have just started.

What were the activities you were a part of?

 

I was a very active student in college. Name the ‘cell’ or the ‘committee’, and I was there in it. Apart from all the college activities, I was associated with several NGOs and experimental leadership training groups. I used to enroll for every other diploma/certificate course, thinking it may help me in getting a job. Today, the students have a lot of avenues to get information and then decide what is right for them. For me, it has always been the harder way of “hit and trial method”, but I am not complaining at all.

Apart from the above, I used to teach in a school in Pune over the weekends and go for my long mountaineering trips by cutting down on my internship period by 10 days (well every internship), sell newspaper subscriptions and insurance products (yes I was an insurance agent from 2nd year to 5th year of college and surrendered my license, right after getting placed).

If today, I am asked to give a list of top 3 things which is essential apart from attending regular classes, the list will look like this: (i) participating in moot courts, (ii) self-reading and writing articles or research papers; and (iii) internships.

Tell us about the nature of work you are entrusted with and what’s a typical day like?

 

Apart from merely leading transactions, involving corporate and commercial laws, I advise on private equity matters, as well as structures requiring India entry strategies. Just to give a quick flavor, my work profile includes advising on various acquisition matters (both domestic and cross-border), contract negotiations, financial investment strategies, joint ventures, strategic alliances, exit options and general corporate matters.

A typical day at work is the same as any corporate lawyer- attending to client meetings and conference calls; internal meetings, reviewing the documents, responding to emails, etc. However, I make sure that I take out the “me time” for reading the legal updates, chatting with seniors and taking my coffee (and stamina-sticks) breaks.

To satisfy my academic inclination, I teach at ILS Law College, KC Law College and Government Law College, Securities Law Course, the Institute of Company Secretaries of India (seminars) on issues pertaining to foreign direct investments, due diligence; companies act, the law relating to contracts and related subjects.

How do you say one can gain expertise in corporate law? What does it take to be a good corporate lawyer?

 

There’s no strategy or science behind becoming an expert in any area. If you like the subject, half the work is already done.

I will digress a little bit, but it’s important. Most of the interviews, students are able to answer (to perfection), the questions, which are out of their regular curriculum (like questions on FDI Policy, FEMA). However, a simple question on contract act, sale of goods act, companies act, will make them scratch their ear.

The short point is, the basics of law need to be absolutely clear. This cannot be compromised if you want to excel (I am not talking about being an average corporate lawyer). All the other fancy laws can be learnt while working. Always remember, Indian Contract Act 1872 is the “mother of all laws”, and you must know it and know it all.

Having said all this, please make a note that just by knowing the law (or so called being an expert) will not make you a good corporate lawyer. You need to be a team player, learn to logically articulate your point/ position and never be disrespectful in an argument (unless the other person is a bully). Everything else will fall in place.

How do you maintain a work-life balance? Are there any specific time management tips you would like to share?

 

Though this is tricky, it’s critical for me. Life of a corporate lawyer is very demanding, so one has to make a conscious effort to maintain this balance. For last several years, this has worked for me (not saying that it has worked all the time):

  • maintaining an effective to-do list (and prioritize matters)
  • effectively delegating and keeping the working team on the same page, up-to-date with the matter so the person next in line can take charge whenever required
  • Learning the art of saying “no.” Sometimes this is the key (Caution: use with care).  

Most of my friends wake up, shower, and go straight to work. They all complain about having no time to do anything. I make sure that I get at least 3 hours for myself in the morning.This makes me more productive and helps in having a peaceful workday.

Tell us about your journey from being a student to a partner. Whether life changes after being a partner?

 

For me, this journey was a natural process. I kept my focus on doing good work and left all other things to my mentors (who never disappointed me). My agenda was to complain only when I wasn’t getting challenging work

(but that never happened).

Life doesn’t change if you like your work and have the same vision as the firm. Just be prepared for the responsibility.

Tell us about your international secondments. How important are these secondments?

 

The six months I spent in Tokyo with Morrison & Foerster, provided me with a very different kind of exposure. Japan as a jurisdiction is a unique, distinct and process oriented. I sincerely believe that such secondments are very important for everyone who is on track for a leadership role.

How to excel in what you do? How to become the star of the firm?

 

There’s no rocket science in excelling in anything you do. You:

 

    • have to be passionate about what you do. If you aren’t, change
    • should keep your focus on quality work
    • shouldn’t get bothered about what people say behind your back (just remember, they are either jealous or simply jealous and that means you are doing good)  
    • Interact with your seniors. You will get to learn a lot, even in a mere 2 min conversation
    • teach a subject at some law school. You will be amazed to see how this will change things in your work life

select a stream/ segment and be the champion in that enjoy your life.

  • If you keep taking the stress and working all days, weeks and months- what’s the fun in being a star.   

What is the difference between a hard worker and a smart worker?

 

A hard worker is a like a horse with blinkers, just running in one direction without a long-term goal. A smart worker will have a 360-degree vision, will prioritize things and effectively manage his time. No one wants to be in office over the weekends!

Please note that there’s a difference between ‘shirking away responsibility’ and the ‘art of delegation’. As you go up the ladder, you have to be a smart worker, taking the team together towards the collective vision through effective delegation, prioritizing things and being responsible for team’s action.

How important are the grades at a law school?

 

If a survey is done, this question will top the list of every law student. We should remember one simple point, anything that reflects on ‘what all and how’ have you done things in your five years (or 3 years) of college life- is relevant, very relevant. I am not in any way looking away from the known concerns on curriculum, a pattern of examination and marking strategy. I am just trying to say things are relative, isn’t it the same for every student taking the exam? So you have to be relatively the best! Period.

Having said this, I don’t believe that just a good grade is an indication of strong fundamental knowledge of the law, but it’s enough to bring you to the other side of the table for an interview. Isn’t that the first hurdle, which you want to cross anyway.

Is it important to be people’s person for career progression?

 

Well, this is a very tricky question. Let me answer this little differently.

You cannot give importance to a bi-product. However, sometimes, certain bi-products are equally valuable, just like the final product itself. Therefore, the entire process force has to be directed towards the final product, and all other things will fall into place.

I won’t say that being a people’s person is a critical criterion. But everyone likes to work in a team, which is aligned towards one goal.

What is the importance of socializing on career progression?

 

We need to understand that ‘socialization’ as a construct is not a skill-set, which needs to be developed. We are born with it. The entire premise of civilization and society is based on socialization. Ross (well…not Mike Ross!) defined socialization as “the development of the we feeling in associates and their growth in capacity and will to act together.” Gone are those days where a star corporate lawyer used to steal the show! It’s the era of “we & all” and only collective effort of the team makes an individual and the firm successful.

Please note that socialization in this context doesn’t mean eating, drinking, smoking, partying and/or gossiping together. It means more than this! Having a meaningful conversation with everyone, greeting them, and being there when they need you (work or otherwise) is the construct, which helps you attain that maturity and stability in the system. Having said this, you shouldn’t confuse this with ‘acting in a manner to please others’.

I feel that today, a firm may be ready to lose a star lawyer who is not a team player rather than a perfect team player. Productivity and effectiveness are directly proportionate to the collective efforts. The standards these days are so high that every other lawyer has same or similar skill-sets as far as the technical/legal skills are concerned. What will differentiate a good lawyer from the rest are the leadership skill and the ability to make team members a part of transaction/ matter they are working on. In my experience, productivity and learning agility of an associate increases exponentially when he/ she gets a feeling of “my matter” rather than “partners’ matter”.

What message would you like to leave to our readers?

 

Especially for the young corporate lawyers, it’s important that they:

  • learn to write/ draft in simple English;
  • understand and appreciate the commercial construct of transactions, and
  • understand, the client wants a solution-oriented approach.  

I am not highlighting the obvious that they need to know the law and keeping abreast with the latest developments/transactions.

I genuinely believe that I am a risk taker. I know that if I don’t take any chances in this short life, I will have a dull and boring life.Who wants a boring life anyway? Having said that, it doesn’t mean you will succeed every time. In fact, you will fail most of the times, but the good part is the experience you get and the fact that you will never regret “not doing it”. Regretting about things ‘that you never tried’ is worst than trying and failing.

The short point is that you should do whatever you want to do in life if you feel it’s the right thing for you. Period. Whatever you do in life (good or bad), people around you will speak about you. It’s fine, because, at the end of the day, you are here for the experience and not to just please people around you.

Also, if you’re good at what you do, there’s no reason you can’t brag about it.

Always remember, we all ‘work to live’ and not ‘live to work’. Being dedicated is one thing and being in office 24/7 is another. Go out, meet with friends, travel, do something for yourself, and patiently hear everyone but listen to just yourself.

Fitness is not just an important aspect; it’s essential if you want to enjoy your work as well as your personal life. You just can’t ignore it. I don’t need to explain what needs to be done. Everyone knows it, so don’t be lazy, go out and sweat.

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